Literally, that is, since the word comes from amicus.
But there's more to it than that. Its existence, even as that existence becomes endangered, is a reminder of something worthwhile: that your alb is supposed to cover your street clothes, not show them off. Collars included.
In one of his reader Q&As today, Fr. Zuhlsdorf is asked about laypeople serving at the altar, and whether they should have their ties and turtlenecks and what-all sticking up from their cassocks. The obvious answer is no, and neither should the clergy. Both Fr. Z. and his reader refer to the appropriate section of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal. Case closed, Roman-style.
But for those of us who do not answer to the authority of the GIRM, the question may require an answer from first principles. So, briefly:
- Vestments, by their nature, are designed to tell a story -- not about the wearer's individuality, but about his or her place in the assembly. Far from being an opportunity for personal display, they are a guide to the task that each person will fulfill in the service. These are all baptized; this one is ordained, either to the priesthood or the diaconate; that one will celebrate Holy Communion. Ah, say the faithful, reading the day's living bulletin; we understand.
- By the same logic, various bits of personal haberdashery -- notably wristwatches and bracelets -- are customarily removed when leading worship. The last thing anybody wants is to solemnly elevate a chalice, and yet have the faithful in the pews distracted by one's butt-ugly G-Shock.
- The traditional base garment for the minister of Holy Communion is the alb, a simple white robe. To fulfill its purpose of covering up the secular clothing, the alb is designed with close-fitting sleeves and a hem that falls just above the tops of the shoes. The neck (along with shirt collars and other neckwear) is covered by the amice, which while not part of the alb as such was for many generations inseparable from it in use. The net effect is that the celebrant's head, hands and feet are revealed, and the rest is covered up by pure baptismal whiteness. Other vestments are added to this foundation, which is the immersion of the individual into the fundamental reality of the Church, the Resurrection of Christ.
- The alb has spread beyond the celebrant, and is now frequently used by other ministers as well. This means that where, once, the alb was nearly always worn under a chasuble, now it is often worn without any other vestment.
- The cassock-alb, introduced (we believe) by C.M. Almy and now available from every supplier on earth, has virtually eliminated the use of the amice.
Neither of these is objectionable by itself. Although cassocks and surplices offer a much neater appearance on most people than albs, because they don't bunch up as much, they are not magical. One plain white robe delivers the message as well as another. And the cassock-alb is eminently practical.
However, as albs have come to be used more widely, marketing forces have led to a greater diversity of styles than existed in the past. Some of these styles defeat the basic purpose of an alb. Excessively wide sleeves simulate a surplice, and cowl necks proudly reveal whatever may be underneath -- typically, a clerical collar and a flash of one's shirt. Better that than chest hair, we suppose -- but still.
It makes you want to stand up and say, "Dude, just buy an amice."
We hate to pick on an easy target, but this brings us to (D&FMS of the) PECUSA PB Katherine Jefferts Schori. Schori's vestment choices are so predictably wretched that they seem to deliberately mock the customary good taste of her peers. And in fact, we have come to believe that she is, deliberately and savagely, mocking much of the rest of the Anglican clergy and especially its episcopate, with many of whom she is upon notoriously poor terms.
Consider the picture to your right.
Cowl neck? Check. Flapping sleeves? Ditto. And chasuble? Could be worse, but it ain't pretty. Under normal circumstances, we would consider this an example of extremely bad judgment. Under normal circumstances.
But as most readers know, this photo was snapped in the midst of what the Anglican world calls "Mitregate." Bishop Schori, on a recent visit to Britain, was asked by Lambeth Palace to forgo the use of her mitre in procession when she celebrated the Eucharist. The official basis of the request was that CofE canon law does not recognize the existence of female bishops; the underlying reality is that this was clearly read, and surely meant, as a snub to Schori.
Her revenge? According to our theory, it was to proceed wearing attire that clearly revealed her ordination both to the priesthood (note the collar) and to the episcopate (note the flash of purple shirt). It was just the sort of telling of one's personal story that the tradition discourages and vestments, traditionally designed and worn, discourage. But there are times when one's personal story is a n important and timely witness to the Gospel. Perhaps this was one of them.
The moral of the story is twofold. First, buy an amice. By which we really mean, let us all wear our vestments as they were meant to be worn, not merely for the sake of decency and order, but for the sake of the Gospel we are called to proclaim. And second, sometimes decency order may get in the way of the proclamation. So then you skip the amice.